The Best and Worst U.S. Airlines in August

U.S. airlines’ performance rose and consumer complaints fell in August, according to the Department of Transportation’s most recent Air Travel Consumer Report.

Still, “improved” performance is still not “great” performance for many carriers. The 15 airlines tracked by the Department of Transportation averaged an on-time arrival rate of 79.1% — up three percentage points from July’s grim on-time stats, but still down a hair from the 79.3% average in August 2011. That’s a big reason consumer complaints tumbled by 23% from 2,466 in July to 1,886 in August.

United Continental’s (NYSE:UAL) performance continued to struggle as it integrates the former Continental and has experienced monumental glitches with reservation systems. The airline did begin to bounce back from a dreadful showing in July, when more than one-third of its flights were delayed and consumer complaints soared by 50%.

Here’s the breakdown of August 2012’s best and worst airlines as measured by performance in three areas: on-time flights, mishandled baggage and complaints:

Best On-Time Arrival Performance

1. Hawaiian Airlines – (NASDAQ:HA) — 92.8%

There’s no trouble in paradise for Hawaiian Airlines, which not only held onto the top spot for on-time performance in August, but regained the three percentage points of altitude lost in July. The airline easily has been able to hold onto its top ranking since 2004. Industry-leading performance metrics undoubtedly played a role in the carrier’s whopping 78% gain in third-quarter net income.

Runners Up:
2. Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK) — 89.3%
3. Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) — 83.9 %
4. U.S. Airways (NYSE:LCC) — 82%

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
AirTran (unit of Southwest) — 81.7%

Worst On-Time Arrival Performance

1. United Continental — 72.2%

United Continental UALThe bad news: United Continental’s on-time performance continued to bring up the rear in August as it struggles with integration challenges. The good news: The carrier was able to recover from its historic on-time performance low of 64.1% in July. In Thursday’s third-quarter earnings call, UAL CEO Jeff Smisek admitted that weaker performance metrics played a role in slashing the airline’s quarterly profit by $6 million, and revenue by 2.6%. “We recognize that some of our customers chose to fly other airlines during the summer when our operational performance degraded,” he said.
Runners Up:
2. JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) — 73.7%
3. ExpressJet Airlines, regional subsidiary of SkyWest (NASDAQ:SKYW) — 74.7%
(While these on-time stats are nothing to write home about, ExpressJet’s numbers actually reflect a six-percentage point improvement over July.)

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
’s (PINK:AAMRQ) American Airlines — 75.8%
Southwest (NYSE:LUV) — 79.6%

Fewest Mishandled Bags:

1. Virgin America — 1.06 reports per 1,000 passengers

Virgin America continues to impress, although its mishandled bag rate inched up slightly from the 0.85 it reported in June. At slightly more than one mishandled bag per 1,000 passengers, its rate blows away the industry average of 3.38.

Runners Up:
2. AirTran — 1.87 reports per 1,000 passengers
3. JetBlue — 2.10 reports per 1,000 passengers

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
Delta Air Lines — 2.19 reports per 1,000 passengers.
U.S. Airways — 2.26 reports per 1,000 passengers.

Most Mishandled Bags

1. ExpressJet — 6.40 reports per 1,000 passengers

This SkyWest subsidiary’s mishandled bag rate actually improved slightly in August, but its performance in the category still is not impressing passengers. “Feeder carriers” like ExpressJet tend to have greater challenges managing baggage than their larger peers, in part because of delays. ExpressJet had 26 flights that have been chronically delayed for the past two months.

Runners Up:
3. American Eagle — 6.02 reports per 1,000 passengers
2. SkyWest — 5.64 reports per 1,000 passengers

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
United Continental — 4.38 reports per 1,000 passengers
Southwest — 3.50 reports per 1,000 passengers
American Airlines — 2.86 reports per 1,000 passengers

Fewest Customer Complaints

Delta Air Lines DALDelta Air Lines subsidiary Comair — 5

Regional airline Comair was successful in holding down customer complaints in August and stole top honors in the category away from Virgin America, which saw its complaints triple from 5 in July to 15 in August. That’s still exemplary baggage-handling performance, however.

Runner Up:

Pinnacle Airlines (PINK:PNCLQ) subsidiary Colgan Air — 6

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
Virgin America — 15
AirTran — 16
JetBlue — 26
Southwest — 37

Most Customer Complaints

United Continental UAL1. United Continental — 467

United managed to cut its total complaints by more than half in August to 467 — down from July’s 995. Flight problems led the list with 174, followed by 67 reservations and ticketing complaints and 55 customer service issues. Meanwhile, American Airlines’ complaints continued to rise from 193 in July to 223 in August — a dynamic that likely will get a little worse before it improves.

Runners Up:
American Airlines — 223
Delta Air Lines — 130

How Other Major Airlines Stack Up:
Spirit Airlines — 68
US Airways — 98

As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

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